By Khanh Vu and Hyunsu Yim
HANOI/SEOUL (Reuters) -South Korea and Vietnam agreed on Friday to boost security cooperation, citing North Korea’s nuclear threat, and committed to increasing bilateral trade and investment despite a slump this year and Vietnam’s planned tax hikes on large firms.
In his first visit to Vietnam as president, South Korean leader Yoon Suk Yeol acknowledged economic woes but reiterated Vietnam’s key role for Seoul’s growth strategy.
He signed 17 agreements with Vietnam’s President Vo Van Thuong on a number of issues, from critical minerals to Vietnamese workers in Korea, and said Seoul would step up cooperation with Vietnam against North Korea’s nuclear threat.
Vietnam is one of few countries which can boast close relations with Pyongyang. Vietnam “is ready to participate in the process of denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula”, Thuong said in a joint press conference.
The two nations also agreed to boost defence industry relations and security cooperation in the South China Sea. South Korea is one of many countries discussing possible arms sales to Vietnam as it seeks to modernise its arsenal.
Korea and Vietnam over the last few decades have developed almost symbiotic industrial ties, with South Korea being the largest foreign investor in Vietnam. Seoul also enjoys the highest level of diplomatic relations with Hanoi, together with Russia, China and India.
The leaders reiterated a goal of boosting bilateral trade, despite a slump so far this year driven by lower global demand for smartphones and other electronic goods that Korean firms assemble in Vietnam with many components shipped from Korea.
“Although the business environment is difficult in recent years, we must find new opportunities in Vietnam, which is the centre of global supply chain reorganisation and an emerging consumer market,” Yoon said.
Bilateral trade has fallen by a quarter in the first five months of this year compared to the same period in 2022, with a nearly 30% drop in Vietnamese imports of South Korean products.
This year Korean firms have also invested in Vietnam much less than competitors, with China and Japan easily outstripping Seoul, Vietnam’s government data show.
Falling orders for electronic goods have forced South Korean firms to reduce their Vietnam workforce, multiple industry and business sources say.
To tackle this negative trend, Seoul agreed to financial support worth over $4 billion by 2030, almost entirely in loans, to help Vietnam on climate change, education and health.
However, to complicate matters, Hanoi is set to introduce from next year a new levy on large corporations, including big Korean multinationals, as part of a global reform of tax rules that could reduce Vietnam’s appeal as a manufacturing hub.
Samsung Electronics, the biggest investor in the country, and LG Electronics are among large firms negotiating possible compensations to offset higher taxes.
“Companies are seeking to reshore more and diversify rather than go all-in for Vietnam,” said James Jung, Seoul-based analyst at Hyundai Motor Securities, noting Vietnam’s appeal has fallen in recent months, also because of the new levy.
To try to address those issues, Yoon is accompanied in his state-visit by a 205-strong business delegation.
In the joint press conference, Thuong said he welcomed Korean firms to invest in gas-fired power plants and semiconductor projects in Vietnam.
South Korean companies are among the main investors in Vietnam’s nascent Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) industry, which is expected to boost the country’s electricity output and battle shortages that saw power cuts in northern provinces where South Korean manufacturers operate.
(Reporting by Khanh Vu and Thinh Nguyen in Hanoi; Joyce Lee and Hyunsu Yim in Seoul; Additional reporting by Edward Davies; Writing by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry)
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